We need a legitimate police service

Positive reforms are in place but they are regularly undermined by the over-policing of Māori, a drift towards coercive policing, and the under-policing of many victims, say criminology academics.

As protests around Parliament churn through a second week, debate is mounting about the effectiveness of the police response and the legitimacy of available controls.

There are difficult decisions ahead for the police in dealing with the protest, though questions about the legitimacy of police actions are far from new.

The past few years have been contentious for the service. Unauthorised deployment of live facial recognition technology, aggressive “public order” policing of climate change and other protests, and the unlawful collection of intelligence (including photographs) via street stops of innocent rangatahi are among the issues to have hit the headlines.

It has been a period of calls, from many quarters, for systemic policing reforms and occasional demands to defund police. For many, policing practices have undermined organisational legitimacy and thus the public consent on which policing depends.

The New Zealand Police has justified its practices in the name of public safety. The police commissioner has repeated his insistence that the police remain focused on public consent and attaining 90 percent “trust and confidence”. In light of each revelation of over-reach, this ambitious target recedes further into the distance.

Why legitimacy is important
Over the past two decades, an extensive body of research has identified that legitimacy is central to effective policing. Research confirms legitimacy is more effective at fostering compliance and co-operation than the use (or threat) of force or fear of punishment. Police legitimacy is therefore associated with safer police-citizen interactions, enhanced social order, and greater public satisfaction.

Research also tells us the primary pathway to legitimacy is through procedural justice and people’s perceptions of whether the police treatment they receive is fair, regardless of the outcome (eg. arrest). When police employ fair procedures and citizens are treated with dignity and respect, and are allowed a voice, co-operation and compliance are likely to follow.

It is also clear police legitimacy is more precarious in communities with ethnically diverse populations and subject to disadvantages. In these areas, police and communities can operate with long-term tension, mistrust and conflict.

As highlighted in the 2019 Turuki! Turuki! report from the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, the experience of policing within Māori, ethnically diverse and disadvantaged communities (often one and the same), differs markedly from the majority. These communities are less likely to experience procedural justice and less likely to perceive police as legitimate.

Policing past and present
In The Aotearoa Handbook of Criminology, we argue the police could build legitimacy by attending to the past, present and future of policing. First this requires an enacted commitment by police to resolve historical grievances and reposition relationships with Māori communities.

We often forget the police were established as an intensely militarised, colonising force. Operations, cultures and practices have been shaped through an institutional setting that incorporated dispossession, violent controls, repression of resistance, and colonial power.

Many examples illustrate this point, from the Land Wars (1845-1872) and Parihaka (1881) to more recent examples of repressive policing of Māori, including at Bastion Point (1978), Rūātoki (2007), Ihumātao (2019) and Pūtiki Bay (2021).

Policing remains a means to deliver discrimination, inequities and trauma for Māori, a point highlighted in the disproportionate levels of removals of children from whānau, arrests, convictions and prison sentences.

It is also illustrated in lesser protections for Māori victims who are under-policed. It’s further apparent in the ways policing dominates over health or welfare services, seen most clearly in the criminalisation of those with mental health problems.

The police service has sought to clarify the nature of its structural problem—is it institutionalised racism, individual racism, conscious bias or even unconscious bias? It is working hard to change its frames and practice through development of iwi officers, Māori advisory boards, processes such as Te Pae Oranga (iwi community panels), the (temporary) acceptance of police/iwi-led Covid-19 checkpoints to protect Māori communities, and a “refreshed strategy” in Te Huringa o Te Tai that makes an ambitious commitment to reduce Māori reoffending by 25 percent by 2025.

While a lot is happening, our eyes must stay on the prize. As the criminologist Juan Tauri has observed, we need to start to see a “demonstrable effect on Māori rates of victimisation, offending, re-offending and imprisonment”.

The future development of crime
Even before the pandemic, more and more time was spent online. Online media increasingly produces the narratives and networks for conflict, as we have seen with the Parliament protests. Even just a cursory review of offending—including the rise of sexual violence, fraud, property crimes or hate crimes online—shows cybercrime will become an increasingly global problem.

The police service doesn’t clearly track cybercrime. They are often left out of crime counts. While overseas police services have established dedicated cybercrime units and bespoke reporting facilities for victims, New Zealand’s priorities remain focused on conventional “terrestrial” crimes.

Our policing must quickly adapt to crime’s new profile or risk a further erosion of legitimacy from a public that is becoming more aware of their online vulnerabilities. Unless the police, supported by government, invest heavily in the resources and knowledge required to upskill, it risks becoming irrelevant in the policing of online crime as victims turn to other bodies, often in the private sector, to resolve their problems.

Resolving legitimacy problems
The past, present and future of policing must be at the centre of any police transformations. Positive reforms are already in place. Yet these are regularly stymied by the over-policing of Māori (and others), a drift towards coercive policing, and the under-policing of many victims.

To resolve the problem of legitimacy, police work must focus on Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations. This requires significant cultural shifts to embed different practices of discretion or community engagement that serve whānau, hāpū, and iwi-centred responses to crime.

Beyond this, the police service needs to reflect on the nature of what and who is policed, so the organisation can better represent, protect and serve all communities. It also requires us, as citizens, to do the same, and to more clearly articulate when policing should withdraw and give way to other services for our benefit.

Dr Trevor Bradley, senior lecturer, Institute of Criminology, Te-Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington;
Angus Lindsay, PhD candidate, Institute of Criminology, Te-Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington; and
Prof Elizabeth Stanley, Director, Institute of Criminology, Te-Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington